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Opening remarks by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, at the closing press conference of the Durban Review Conference



Geneva, 24 April 2009


Thank you for coming today. I don’t know whether you take a lunch hour but you’re here more or less lunchtime. And I want to thank you for following this conference so assiduously.

The Durban review Conference is technically not over until later this afternoon. But I know you have deadlines, and unfortunately our deadlines tend to be later than yours. Therefore I changed my schedules to come speak with you.

Because today we have some very good news, I’m jumping the gun. I do not expect any impediment between now and the end of the conference, when the final report should be adopted. It would be extraordinary if there were any impediments, but then many extraordinary things have happened during this conference process, so perhaps I shouldn’t count my chickens before they are hatched. But since I’m not a chicken, I’m telling you that I think everything will go well. There could still be one or two fiery speeches this afternoon, but the key to this conference – the final outcome document – is in the bag. We have it. It is a good document. It cannot be reopened now. And thereby hangs a tale.

Since day one of my new job as High Commissioner, I was committed to the Durban Review Conference. From September 1 when I took office until today, I simply cannot recall how many meetings, phone calls, discussions I have had with my team and with ministers, ambassadors, NGOs, journalists, to explain why this conference was so important and why it should enjoy participation by all.

It was very difficult. I had to face a widespread, and highly organized campaign of disinformation. Many people, including Ministers with whom I spoke, told me that the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, which as you know was agreed by 189 states at the original World Conference Against Racism in 2001 was anti-Semitic, and it was clear that either they had not bothered to read what it actually said, or they were putting a cast on it that was, to say the least, decidedly exaggerated.

Many others have labelled the entire Durban process as a “hate fest.” We have had some rough moments in the process, but a “hate fest?” I’m sorry, this is hyperbole. It is a gross exaggeration. But it is everywhere on the Internet. And I’m sorry to say many mainline newspapers who incidentally declined many op-eds that I sent up to them. Because I kept urging States to take part, one of the most vociferous opponents of the conference called me the “dangerous High Commissioner for Human Rights.” So if you see a special look about me, that’s the danger. Another called me the “ludicrous High Commissioner for Human Rights.” That look I have dropped since. I expect these types of personal attacks to continue for the rest of my tenure. But I can live with them because I see this conference as a success and I know that you will judge this process in a valid and fair way.

If people actually read the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, they would have realized that it includes a paragraph which says that “the Holocaust should never be forgotten”. It includes two paragraphs that denounce “anti-Semitism and Islamophobia”, and one paragraph which mentions the suffering of the Palestinians, their right of self-determination and the security of all States, including Israel, and two paragraphs calling for peace. That’s all there is on the Middle East. And I could not get these corrections published in some important newspapers, particularly in the US, who used the word hate fest without checking these paragraphs.

The final document of this conference – the Conference product, if you like – also says the Holocaust must never be forgotten and deplores anti-Semitism along with Islamophobia and all forms of racism, xenophobia, racial discrimination and related intolerance. But already the propaganda machine is starting to wind up to term this conference a failure, a “hate fest and all the rest of it.” This is extraordinary. Yet no one has really written up the true story of this Conference – a strange rough and tumble affair full of smoke and mirrors, I must admit, yet very definitely a success story, with plenty of good will as well as plenty of bad will of the type I have described just now.

I want to say at this point particularly to you that the Geneva press corps has been terrific during the later stages of this process. You have seen through the propaganda, you have read the DDPA and the Review Conference’s outcome document, and you have reported accurately, fairly and professionally. So on behalf of my entire office, I would like to extend you a very warm thank you for that. I believe you have played an exceptionally important role. I know that some of you have had to argue with editors who, like so many others, have succumbed to the mythology.

But because of this campaign that was so determined to kill the conference, some countries decided to boycott it, although a few days earlier, they had actually agreed on what is now the final text. I consider this bizarre. You agree the text on Friday evening, and walk out on Sunday. I think, it was unfortunate that a few states disengaged from the process. Although almost all of them had agreed this text, they are not part of the consensus that adopted it. I do hope they will come back into the process now. They can still add their names to the list of 182 states that have adopted the outcome document. And by the way, Iran is part of that consensus. When the final call came, Iran did not oppose the text.

Now I would like to make some important thank-yous. Perhaps one difference I made was to pick a most extraordinary, indefatigable and – perhaps most importantly – optimistic director, Ibrahim Salama, to head my team working behind the scenes on the text negotiation and all the other legion of issues involved in running a world conference such as this. My Office is really very small, understaffed and under-resourced to run a conference of this magnitude, and many of my staff worked literally day and night for months on end to try to make the conference succeed. This is to whom I owe the success of this conference – to all the staff who volunteered in so many little ways and gave time and energy to all the functions that needed to be carried out.

I needed a man of Ibrahim Salama’s sheer determination, and his refusal to face defeat, to keep spirits from flagging in the face of such vitriolic opposition. This undoubtedly was a major factor in salvaging the text, and therefore the conference. Dr. Salama travelled tirelessly to the Middle East, to New York, around all the capitals in Europe, to narrow the differences, argue, explain, suggest solutions, and remind all states how important it was to build a consensus. I think these are particular qualities of being a former diplomat. A former ambassador helped us here.

Another key player was the Russian chair of the group working on the text. Yuri Boychenko was also very impressive and indefatigable in his efforts to build a consensus. I can tell you that, many times, we were on the brink of failure, but we didn’t give up, we never gave up, and that is why we succeeded. And 30 seconds before the document was adopted in the Preparatory Committee, both Yuri Boychenko and I were surrounded by some representatives who wanted last-minutes changes in that document and I particularly felt for Yuri that it was unfair that he is being put under such pressure in the last minute or so.

With regard to the Assembly Hall on Monday, and of course I was taken aback by the scenes, but I still felt that we could pull it off, settle it down quickly – because, in effect they had already agreed the text. We had really good cooperation from many states and international organizations as well. I would like to thank them all for that. I would also thank other key states on the 20-country bureau of the Preparatory Committee for the role they played

The regional and political groups all made concessions. It’s very important to note that. It was difficult for them. If you take the Arab countries for instance: they accepted that neither Palestine, nor the Middle East is mentioned in the text. Of course they are mentioned in the DDPA and the word “reaffirm” carries those paragraphs into this document, but no specific mention of these paragraphs in this text because of the concessions made by them. That is extremely difficult for them to do politically. The OIC was also very cooperative as we moved towards consensus. The Africans, the Europeans and all the other groups also made concessions to a greater or lesser degree. That’s why we say that no individual state is completely happy with this document but collectively they are all happy with it.

So there we are. That is part of the story of the Durban Review Conference . I’ll leave the rest to you.

Thank you.